Of Nuclear Weapons, Dirty Bombs, Handling Threat, Facing Fear And Some Very Necessary Steps

Posted on October 14, 2013 in GlobeScope

By Apurav Maggu:

To understand the art of strategy and the art of war, the magnum opusThe art of war’ by Sun Tzu is prescribed, but to comprehend military philosophy and dithering nature of human mind, the forgotten magnum opus ‘Mahabharta’ by Ved Vyas should be read. One particular anecdote is the story of Braham Astra (supposedly compared to a nuclear weapon in ancient times in the Indian mythology). The two warring parties, under the leadership of Ashwathama and Arjun fired, one at each other respectively. Arjun (the wise one) had called his weapon back, however, Ashwathama (the foolish one) did not know how to call the weapon back and the resultant fire and destruction from the explosion of that weapon created such scorching heat and energy that it illuminated the three worlds. Gods had cursed him that his ‘wounds would never heal and he will wander in the forests for three thousand years’. The foolish ones’ father was a great teacher to both the camps, but found himself on the other side. After the war it was asked from a great sage ‘O wise one! Tell me why do people so sane and educated do not understand that for a war every person in the kingdom had to pay the price’. The sage could not answer him but suggested that ‘even the most rational people lose their senses during a war’.

The Manhattan project which gave Americans the nuclear bomb, started a new era in itself. Earth was now just a button away from destruction, a slight misjudgement and the world could be blown apart into pieces seven times. It gave us a nuclear weapon. It created a weapons race, fuelled the ideological war between two superpowers and has shaped humanity and mankind for generations to come.

With the end of cold war, it might seem that the wandering Ashwathama (the foolish one) might have found peace and people might have learned that the dogs of war, if released, could be catastrophic for the humanity. In the present times, the eerie feeling of ‘Ashwathamas’ ghost clinging on to humanity, still exists.

dirty bombs

Weapons of mass destruction are what any rogue non state actor or terrorist would love. Get one of these and you can threaten the whole country or humanity into succumbing into their demands. However, it’s easier said than done, as it requires a 200 million dollar investment from smuggling to maintaining one nuke, for a sophisticated terrorist group. It would become too much of a headache for anyone to take. And every terrorist knows that AK-47’s or machine guns also haven’t terrorized people much. The way out is to change your dream — instead of dreaming a Hiroshima for any nation, dream Chernobyl. Take a small pellet of caesium chloride (available in many hospitals) and put it in a small timer explosive or an IED (improvised explosive device which are in news because of Iraq and Afghanistan wars) and voila! You have created the perfect weapon.

A rational thinker would suggest that, at best, an IED would kill 10 people and afterwards you must stand in solidarity with the countrymen who died and criticize the government for its inaction and denounce terrorism. However, now the episode won’t end there. The air that would now be inhaled contains caesium chloride, which would amplify the probability of having cancer from one in two hundred to one in two. Inhaled air, present in the environment around you, becomes toxic and the worst thing is that the no one may even know about it. Chances are that even that nation’s government may not know and in a rapid reaction it might classify that very attack as a biological one rather than a nuclear one, and follow a different quarantine protocol altogether, delaying the necessary steps needed to be taken. There are examples when the world did witness something very similar, in Iniguri valley, Georgia. Two homeless people died when they slept on two canisters filled with nuclear waste and the radiation levels of those two small canisters were near to a Chernobyl.

The former Soviet Russia was known for its nuclear arsenal and after the end of the Cold War; Russia inherited 30,000 nuclear weapons from the former Soviet empire. During the Cold War, the Soviets’ love for highly radioactive compounds was well known. The parts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics owned seed throwers, based on an explosion, to increase agricultural productivity. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, these plans were abandoned, leaving these devices to rot in the new countries. Lax regulations and poor police and government structure with leaders anointed for life have put not the nuclear weapons but these small pellets in the black market. There are numerous chemicals that can be used; its powdery nature is what makes caesium chloride special. Being a powdery substance makes it good for low intensity devices, so that the radioactive fallout can spread to far off areas, engulf entire cities and have a fallout effect surpassing national boundaries.

There is a misconception among people that the nuclear material used in dirty bombs comes from nuclear plants or nuclear weapons. Uranium and plutonium are not great sources for such nuclear material, but radionuclides like caesium- 137 and Iodine 131 and cobalt-60, which are used for industrial purposes, provide easy access to nuclear material and are much more lethal in nature.

A Possible Threat Of Terrorism And The Sources

No one knows how many of these machines are there in different countries, but still they pose a possible threat to the world. A source which is commonly used for such nuclear material is cancer hospitals. In 1998, North Carolina, USA, 19 machines used for detection and treatment of cancer were stolen, which contained caesium chloride. Though there have been no reports on their whereabouts,  but there is still a possibility that it might have entered the black market looms.

The junkyard is one of the best places to obtain them from. The famous Mayapuri nuclear incident in New Delhi, India, could have had disastrous consequence if that Cobalt- 60 would have been obtained by a terrorist and repercussions would have been very serious for a developing nation like India. An attack would have terrible results on a growing economy.

The main thing we have to emphasize here is that no news has been recorded yet of where the terrorists have actually got these dirty bombs, but some secret police officials of Russia told that they found a dirty bomb (though it was not going to explode) 40 km off the Russian Parliament as a threat to back off from Chechnya. In December 2001, American authorities caught a person named José Padilla (a.k.a. Abdulla al-Muhajir), known to be a close operative of Al-Qaeda, who was making these bombs on US soil.

Stronger legislations, with round the clock counter-terrorism operation to more transnational cooperation with other nations, are the best preventive measure that can be taken. More heavy handed treatment of terrorists with stronger legislation, like that of the US Patriot Act of the United States, could be a probable solution.

Credible threat to nations like United States and other developed nations does exist but nations like India and China that have significantly remained silent on the US’ War on Terror can become the real targets. While the developed nations have proper response mechanisms and regulatory agencies, developing nations like India lag far behind when it comes to counter-terrorism activities. United States has established a Nuclear Task Force which is committed to check for substances containing nuclear material that could be hazardous and quick reaction forces in the event if it is detected. However, India is yet to give due weightage to a threat from such an act. India has established a Nuclear Disaster Management Agency and has also developed the Defense Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) based at Gwalior. Though the DRDE had planned to buy equipment to detect this nuclear material worth Rs. 1200 crore, the status of the procurement of such equipment still remains haywire.

The looming question still remains as to what can be done if we are attacked or a terrorist gets hold of one of these weapons. The answer would be a probable mass decontamination and a mass deportation. The economic repercussions of that for a city like New York or London would be worse both financially as well as socially. The world would become a more uneasy place to live and a future world would look like a dystopian society if threats like these are not addressed properly.